Hippo Campus sure set a high bar for themselves.
The Woodbury upstarts sold out a two-night stand at First Avenue’s Mainroom before anyone had even heard their full-length debut. But that since-released LP, landmark, more than fulfills the promise of their first two EPs, expanding on the vibrant, riff-fueled sound that initially caught listeners’ attention while adding unexpected flourishes and exploring new sonic routes.
Over afternoon tea and a steady stream of newly Spotified Prince songs at the Bad Waitress, guitarist/vocalist Nate Stocker and bassist Zach Sutton opened up about the recording process behind their new album and the flurry of activity and industry attention that preceded it.
“After the EPs came out, and we finished touring, it was finally like, ‘OK, time for an album,’” says Sutton. “Then we did what we knew how to do, which was just write a bunch of songs and then go from there.”
Rather than cherry-picking the best stuff from their two well-received EPs, Bashful Creatures and South, the group was determined to capture the sound of who they are now. After all, Sutton and Stocker, along with singer/guitarist Jake Luppen and drummer Whistler Allen, are a few years older and wiser than the teenagers who first started on this wild ride back in 2014.
“Those old songs have been with us since literally the beginning of the band,” Sutton says. “Bringing those songs onto the new album would be like asking an 80-year-old to come climb a mountain with us. ‘You’re exhausted. You can just rest now.’”
“Writing is something that we need to do, and that we love to do,” Stocker adds. “Because we write so much, we get tired of everything old really quickly.”
To handle these new songs, Hippo Campus sought out a new producer. After working with Low’s Alan Sparhawk on the EPs, the group switched up their approach for the full-length and brought in BJ Burton, whose work with Bon Iver, James Blake, Lizzo, and Poliça has made him the go-to producer/engineer in the upper Midwest. Burton not only texturized their sound, he challenged their previous methods of songwriting and recording.
“BJ’s method is that you demo, and then you throw everything you can think of, anything in the studio at it, and whatever sticks, sticks,” explains Sutton. “The biggest change and learning process for me was letting go of old ideas, even if it was the same song. We go into it with a song sounding a certain way, but then we’d take out the verse, take out that melody, and put this here instead. There was a lot of time spent pouting — at least I was pouting — like, ‘No, that’s a good part. It has to be in there. That’s not how we wrote it.’ But as painful as it was, eventually I learned to let old ideas go and be open to experimenting.”
With the confidence of early success and a few years of industry experience under their belt, Hippo Campus take bold chances with their sound on landmark, achieving an assurance and polish on its 13 songs that most bands search for their entire careers.
“I feel like the new record is less bouncy compared to our older stuff, and probably different from what people are expecting. It’s a different path,” Stocker admits. “It’s a bit slower, and I think most of it was influenced by our ‘go, go, go, go’ mentality when we’re touring. And then hitting a brick wall as soon as we came home and just slowing down. So we started writing a lot of slower songs, and there’s a lot of heavier vibes on the record. The entire time, it didn’t feel like we were doing anything unnatural, which is kind of all we wanted to do on the new record.”
The group recorded, mixed, and tracked portions of the album in a trio of prestigious Minnesota recording studios — Flowers, Pachyderm, and Terrarium — to supplement the initial recordings they made at the Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas, their first bona fide destination recording experience. “A wild peyote trip in a desert kind of recording studio,” says Sutton with a laugh.
Burton, whom the band describes as being like a brother to them, helped smooth out the transition to such a big studio and quell any pressure the group felt surrounding their full-length debut. “As soon as we got in the studio, things really loosened up,” says Sutton. “It’s crazy how well we meshed as people and friends, and creatively he really challenged us.”
The album art, by their high school friend David Kramer, is reminiscent of David Hockney and has a deep sense of significance for the band.
“The cover is a graphic illustration of our rehearsal space,” explains Stocker. “All of the items in the room are representative of the songs on the album. The calendar represents ‘Monsoon,’ the tree outside is ‘Boyish,’ and the boxing gloves symbolize ‘Buttercup.’ And that room itself is a major landmark for us, and we wanted to pay tribute to that. It’s like the most relevant thing in our lives. Spending all that time writing in that room, it’s where it all started. From the beginning, the band started there.”
To bolster the connection between the band and their supportive hometown fans, Hippo Campus debuted their new songs in a series of intimate local events. They performed the new album in its entirety at Icehouse, put on a stripped-down set at Electric Fetus, and held a small listening party at Urban Bean, all to gradually ease their new material out into the world.
“It was less about the album at that point, and more about community and having people come and listen to something that is a reflection of where we are together, as a group of people,” says Stocker. “That was really rewarding for us, to finally let the album take its first breath in public.”
The day after our conversation, Hippo Campus embarked on a U.S. tour, a journey that will bring them back home this weekend for their two-night stand at First Ave. The experience is sure to only strengthen the bond between the band members.
“We try to live in the moment, I suppose,” Stocker says of any worries the band has about the future. “It’s only ever us — right here, right now. And we’re not trying to be stagnant. Just keep growing, and keep changing.”
“We love each other,” says Sutton proudly. “We’ve likened it to being brothers, as opposed to just friends. We’re family. It’s blood now.”